A change of outfit can do wonders for one’s outlook on life. Just ask Robert Ellis. Never one to be bashful about the pleasures of a good suit — witness his specially made space cowboy threads from recent years — he wears that flair firmly on the sleeve of his new LP, Texas Piano Man. Donning a sharp white tuxedo that gleams like a blank slate against the blue skies and rolling hills of Marfa, Texas, it’s a turn that Ellis comes by honestly.
“This idea of the ‘Texas Piano Man,’ it has all these parallels [with] what people fancy themselves as as Texans,” says Ellis, who lives in Austin, over the phone from Florida, where he’s spending a day off before Texas Piano Man‘s Valentine’s Day release. “We’re all pretty independent and loud, ‘Everything is Bigger in Texas.’ We see ourselves as these quirky, individual people. There’s a crossover with the classic piano man — larger than life and exaggerated.”
The 11 songs on Texas Piano Man are suitably bold, a rollicking, playful collection that hearkens back to freewheeling singer-songwriters and over-the-top showmen like Elton John, Harry Nilsson or Leon Russell. Ellis loses none of his sharp eye for storytelling or emotional nuance on this, his fourth release for New West Records. But he adds a wisecracking edge that allows his airy tenor to become richer and more expressive with his newfound penchant for humor. In other words, it’s a lot of fun.
“I kind of got sick of being a fucking bummer,” Ellis says, with a loud, roaring cackle that peppers much of his conversation. His last album, 2016’s Robert Ellis, was written in the aftermath of a divorce. “I’m at a place now where I want to have more fun with it. This album reflects the whole of my personality a little better than the other material I’ve made. The other records were definitely honest and me, but this one is more how I feel day to day.”
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Ellis’ new approach to making music had to do with a lot more than just a flashy new tux. It started when he put aside his guitar for the piano. “Guitar at some point became not fresh for me anymore. I’d been playing it so long, it was difficult to play something on guitar and feel that same excitement as when you pick up an instrument you’re maybe not as used to,” he says. “I think that’s one of the biggest things in the writing process, is looking for a moment where you’re excited about something.”
Piano gave Ellis just that, but it was hardly new to him. He’d learned to play before he’d ever picked up a guitar, and when he moved to Houston from his hometown of Lake Jackson along the Gulf Coast he was drawn in by local jazz players like Robert Glasper. “Man, I wanted to be like those guys. It was just this insane, high level of musicianship,” he says. While writing the new album, he began listening “obsessively” to Bill Evans. “Just as an instrument, piano has become really appealing to me. It seems like you can do a lot more with it than a guitar.”
That freedom got Ellis thinking more ambitiously, and soon his new persona began to take shape. Billy Joel or Elton John, whose Greatest Hits cover art is echoed by Texas Piano Man, may seem like obvious touchstones, but Ellis says he drew his inspiration from a more unlikely source: Liberace. “Musically it doesn’t sound anything like a Liberace record, but the spirit and glitz and glamor and showmanship and attention to detail, that appealed to me in a big way,” he says. “You’d go to see Liberace and were suddenly transported to this other thing where everything feels fancy. He’s wearing a tuxedo and [there’s a] candelabra, and for an hour or whatever you’re in this other world.”
Right from the get-go, Ellis leans into a playful sense of absurdity with the opening track “Fucking Crazy,” which he not-so-jokingly claims he wants people to play at their weddings. The first single from Texas Piano Man, it encapsulates much of the album’s barbed humor, which mingles a touch of self-deprecation with an undercurrent of lingering futility. “Passive Aggressive” steers those traits in exactly the direction that its title suggests, while “Nobody Smokes Anymore” ratchets up the ridiculous with its defense of bad habits. When “Father” or “Lullaby” wades headlong into more outwardly heavy territory, it’s almost easy to miss how much they all have in common with one another.
“These are all songs that, when I play them for a crowd of people who don’t know who I am and had never heard me, I feel like they get as much enjoyment out of the show as people who know who I am and have heard me before. I’ve never really had material like that,” Ellis admits. But, he adds, the material may not be such a change after all. “I think [with] this record, I maybe just disguised some of those things in plain sight.”
Not surprisingly, then, Ellis refers to the album as a “reclamation” rather than a reinvention — not just of himself, but of what it means to be a Texas musician. “This interviewer once described me as ‘the long-haired Texan.’ I always joked about how that sounds like some breed of show dog,” says Ellis, who, coincidentally, has since cut his hair. “I used to fight with those sorts of things. I don’t want to be Texas music in this boxed-in, narrow way that I felt they mean it. But I’m in a different place now where I want to be like, ‘No, fuck it, this is Texas music. It’s totally mine.'”
By extension, it’s everyone else’s, too. “In my perfect world,” he says, “this would be honky-tonk music” — which is less a commentary on genre or even place as it is a state of mind, one where the cards are on the table and one is free to be who they are, in all their multitudes. Having become a first-time father last summer, Ellis’ world only appears to be expanding.
“This character in my mind, he doesn’t have anxiety. He’s not mad, he’s not insecure. He’s confident and happy and wants to share that with people. That’s the whole point,” says Ellis. “It is me, but it’s also better than me. I want to be more than I am when I go on stage. I want that to be inspiring. I want people in the audience to feel that way, too. I feel like this Texas Piano Man character is a healthy way for everyone to be.”